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Three routes to a PhD

This page contains a collection of stories detailing the routes taken to getting a PhD by various people.

The Direct RouteThe Marine to Land Transition | Letters from America

The Direct Route

Your job

What is it that you do officially, as contrasting to what you do on a day-to-day basis? Each Ph.D. is unique, so the next few hundred words may reveal nothing more significant than my own idiosyncrasies, but I shall try to shed some light on just what it is postgraduate research students in palaeobiology do. I am funded for three years, full-time, having sworn that by the last day of September 2002 I will have produced a 50,000-word thesis on rare and problematical fossils of the Much Wenlock Limestone Formation, and I have no desire to find out what terrible fate awaits me should I still be in Birmingham on the 1st of October next year. As all my material comes from museum collections, I have done no fieldwork, and spend most of my time either in my office, reading obscure journals and trying to work out the systematic palaeontology of my problematica, or else in the departmental labs, drawing, photographing and sectioning specimens, and producing strange looking cladograms in an attempt to resolve the fossils' affinities. It can be quite a solitary existence, so self-motivation is important, but I have tried to get involved in plenty of departmental activities, and my demonstrating to undergraduates in practical classes and on fieldtrips is a pleasant break from staring down microscopes. I am also lucky in that my three office-mates know absolutely nothing about palaeontology, being structural geologists and geophysicists, so I can escape from very old dead things quite easily if I need to.

How do you get there?

I never wanted to be a scientist, I wanted to be...a lumberjack! No, I actually wanted to be a journalist and was going to study English at university until I realized that I would get told what books to read. So I chose the only other academic subject I was consistently interested in geology. My A-Level teacher, Nancy Reid, was wonderfully enthusiastic and convinced me to apply to do a degree in the earth sciences. I went to Liverpool to read Geology & Physical Geography, had a fantastic time there, and got good marks for my final year dissertation on the palaeoecology and functional morphology of Jurassic oysters from Dorset, suddenly making it clear that I could combine creative writing and fossil hunting and possibly make a living from it.

I have always disliked lectures and revision, probably because I have a problem with being told what to do and when to do it. Doing my own research gives me a fair amount of freedom to pursue my own interests, and at the pace I want to, although I now realize as I enter my final year that a strict timetable is important if I want to finish on time. I enjoy working on my own, asking myself questions and then trying to answer them, but with the knowledge that my supervisors are there to be interrogated if it gets too tricky. In the final year of my degree I thought about applying for a Ph.D., but decided to wait, and upon graduation was fortunate enough to be offered a position as a research assistant on a project investigating Carboniferous turbidites. That gave me the chance to find out whether research was the thing for me, and I enjoyed it sufficiently to decide that I would become a student again, albeit one without any lectures, and no long summer holidays.

If I did it all again, it would inevitably turn out completely different, but I tend to let things take their course without really planning or worrying about the future. Life's too ridiculous and interesting to get bogged down by serious intentions, so instead I shall carry on being bogged down by ridiculous and interesting (extinct) life and see where I end up.

by Liam Herringshaw

The marine to land transition!

What 'sparked off' your initial interest in palaeontology?

As a child I was fortunate enough to live a couple of minutes from some major marine fossil sites in Summerville/Charleston, South Carolina, USA. I went through the usual stamp-collecting stage where I used to collect mostly marine fossils like sharks teeth, fish vertebrae, and whale bones. Charleston and the surrounding areas are noted as one of the most prolific fossil marine mammal sites in the world. After dabbling in fossil collecting as a kid and helping Albert Sanders, a curator at the Charleston museum (and he's still there after a century) with digging up some fossil archaeocete whales in my neighbourhood, I didn't study palaeontology in a scientific way until I went to university in 1992. Aside from the enjoyment of collecting fossils as a kid, I was also totally obsessed with fish (the excitement of which was tempered when I discovered girls, skateboarding, and cars). It was a dream of mine to work with both fish and fossils which has now come true.

Was yours the most obvious route?

The answer is a simple No and Yes. No, because before I came to study palaeontology in earnest, I spent ten years as a submarine logistician making sure that the attack submarines I was assigned to were properly equipped to complete their mission, which in case you were wondering, is to make the enemy 'extinct'. After leaving the Navy at the age of 28, I enrolled at the College of Charleston to study accounting (yes I'm a masochist). After about a year I was bored with that and changed my major to pursue marine biology, but soon got bored with that too. My wife, who is English, suggested that I try doing a year abroad. She cunningly said, 'England perhaps'. So I applied and was accepted by UCL where I liked the change so much, I stayed and did a complete honours degree in biology - one of only a handful of U.S. students insane enough to start over at a foreign university. From this point I have to revert to the 'Yes' answer. After graduating at UCL in 1997 I decided I wanted to pursue seriously the research game, where the requirement for a Ph.D. was an advantage. I was fortunate enough with the kind support of Adrian Lister (UCL) to secure a three-year NERC studentship. At present I am nearing the end of my thesis write-up which will be submitted by December 2001.

What was your area of research and why?

Research area: Acanthodian ('spiny shark') systematics. Why? Because I enjoy inflicting large amounts of pain on myself. Mike Coates, my Ph.D. supervisor, approached me as an undergraduate with the idea of testing cladistically the idea of acanthodian inter- and intra-relationships. The problems with this group intrigued me because here you have a large array of primitive gnathostomes which nobody knew how to manage systematically - not an uncommon story for those who study related Devonian taxa. So the acanthodian motto has been: Are we not sharks? we are devo, are we not bony fish? devo, and so the story goes. The literature is rife with a sort of confused 'hand waving' which settles by default for the idea that acanthodians are most likely paraphyletic, so I and my colleague, Gavin Hanke (Univ. of Alberta) will be publishing in this area, hopefully adding some 'meat' to the acanthodian systematic skeleton.

If you were to start over

I would have gone into extant benthic fish studies. Unlike acanthodians which follow a fairly conservative body plan, today's deep-sea fishes are without a doubt a morphologist's dream or nightmare depending on your view of useful characters. Otherwise, I would most likely have entered the world of corporate mergers/breakups, where although the likelihood of a Nature paper is zilch, the monetary rewards could fund a group of hungry palaeontologists. Failing that I wouldn't mind being Dave Martill's stage manager at conferences.

What is it like to get through a Ph.D. without a relevant job waiting for you at the end?

Like doing your own molar extractions without the benefit of a cocain-based drug. It has been demoralising at times, especially after you look at all of the years you have devoted to your science and don't see an immediate reward for your effort. But I must admit that I came into palaeontology with both eyes wide open. One of the wonderful things about our discipline is that one doesn't have to be affiliated with an academic institution (in a research capacity) to be productive and publishing. I was fortunate enough to have the experience and drive to do other things until the golden opportunity (a real palaeo job) rears its head. One way I combatted the jobless palaeo-blues was to publish in a major journal early. I did this in 1999 with Dave Martill as my co-author. I just couldn't wait 4+ years before seeing the fruits of my labours. If a student of mine asked me if they should publish while as a Ph.D. student, I would say yes if the drive and extra commitment are there. I have had two good bites at the palaeo-cherry if you will, but both opportunites fell through due to a lack of funding on one and some research council redtape on the other. But my experiences in trying to land a palaeo job pale in comparison to some others I'm sure.

How long are you prepared to hang around for an opening?

With a growing family to take care of (just added the second branch to my cladogram in the form of my son, Theo, in June), it will be harder for me to jump from permanent bureaucrat to peripatetic researcher. But like many of you lurking out there, I too am waiting for someone to retire, die, or be found in a compromising position with a specimen or two, which will signal another rare opportunity for employment in our beloved science.

by Sam Davis

Letters from America

For the past three years I have been working towards my Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, adding to tail end of the great Celtic Diaspora. This article is based upon my own experiences (sample size of one, always good science), and cannot possibly cover all of the experiences and procedures of the wide number of U.S. institutions that offer opportunities to pursue palaeontological research. I apologize in advance for my ignorance of the Ph.D. systems that operate in the countries of members of the Association who are not familiar with the U.K. system, which I have used as a comparison.

Outline of the U.S. Ph.D.

At Chicago the Ph.D. nominally takes about five years. This is similar to other U.S. universities. You take about two years of courses to prepare you for your independent research. The U.S. undergraduate system produces people with a very different set of skills from the U.K. degree. The emphasis in the U.S. is on a broad-based liberal arts education, which means that students usually have not taken many specialist courses in their chosen research area. Most universities can be fairly flexible in the courses that you take as part of your preparation for research, particularly if you have already taken advanced courses in geology/biology. This makes it possible to take courses in statistics, or a relevant foreign language. It is also possible to take courses at other universities, or participate in summer schools as part of your preparation. During this period you will also assemble a Ph.D. committee of about four or five people who will advise you, and assess your progress towards your Ph.D. After this preparation you will write up and defend a thesis proposal. This allows you to design your own research project, which is rather different from applying to an assigned project. This provides experience in "grant" writing that most people would have to wait until their first postdoc to gain. You may also have to sit a qualifying exam. If you don't have an M.Sc. it is usually possible to convert these first two years into an M.Sc. by writing up a research project, but this varies widely from institution to institution, so be sure to check. After this you will proceed with your research, write it up, and defend it to your committee.

The Application Process

The system for applying for a Ph.D. in the U.S. is somewhat different from the way that things are done in the U.K. You don't usually apply for a specific project. You apply to work in a department or a research programme, perhaps with a particular member of staff. So if there is a place or person that you would really like to work with, contact them, and get the process started as early as possible.

The Ph.D. application procedure begins much earlier than in the U.K. and the World Wide Web and email are invaluable in this respect. There is a lot more paperwork to fill in for a Ph.D. application to a U.S. university, though this will vary depending on the institution. I had to fill in application forms, collect transcripts of my degrees, and generally deal with a lot more bureaucracy than I encountered when applying for Ph.D.s in the U.K. On the upside, U.S. departments usually have a person dedicated to helping students with their applications, and I received a lot of help from these people when I applied to Chicago. I also had to write a "Statement of Academic Intent" for my application to Chicago. This is a short statement of the sort of research questions you might like to pursue in the course of your Ph.D. I certainly haven't been held to that document, it is just another means of assessing candidates, so you shouldn't feel that you are signing your life away in 2,000 words or less. You will probably find that there is a processing fee for your application.

The U.S. educational system loves standardized tests that generate three letter acronyms. I could rant at length about the inequities of standardized testing, but instead I'll recommend "The Mismeasure of Man", S.J. Gould's 1996 book about IQ testing, and leave it to you to draw your own conclusions. You will probably have to sit the General GRE as part of your application process. This again costs money (can you see a theme here?). After my own experience of the tests I recommend you try to look at the format of the tests. Kaplan has a Web site,, but the employment service at your current university probably has some copies of the tests in its library.

Campus Visits

I did not actually visit the University of Chicago before I started work there. In fact I had never been to the States before I staggered off a 747 at O'Hare. However, many prospective students do visit the departments they apply to, often with financial help from the institution they are applying to. Do look into this possibility as it gives you a chance to talk to the graduate students already in the department, and will also let you meet potential advisers in person. I received notification of my acceptance in the middle of February. You should be aware that you will probably have to commit to an offer from a U.S. university before you have even been interviewed for any U.K. positions commencing in the same academic year. It is possible to defer entry, or start at a different point in the academic year, but check with the institution.

Visas and Immigration

To become a student in the U.S. you will probably have to obtain either an F-1 or a J-1 visa. This should be fairly straightforward, but you may find yourself having to go to an embassy or consulate. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), has a Web site with a lot of information, Even before the attacks of the 11th of September the INS was cracking down on people who overstayed on student visas, or who undertook work they were not cleared for under their visa conditions. There was also talk of compelling all J and F visa visitors to carry a special electronic card (costing yet more cash on top of your visa application fee). Considering the current mood in the U.S. I expect this proposal to come into force. Universities have an office dedicated to dealing with international students, and you should contact them as soon as you accept an offer, as they need to send you vital documents for your visa application.


Most graduate students I know live in rented private accommodation or university accommodation. A lot more form-filling is involved in getting a place to live in the U.S. than I am used to. I would recommend that you initially try to get into a sublet with other students, or possibly a member of staff. This can easily be achieved by getting an email circulated around the department. It also serves to establish your identity, as a U.S. address is important for setting up bank accounts, and having a credit history. Leases also tend to be for one year and are harder to get out of than in the U.K. If you take on a lease and leave early, you will be expected to arrange a sublet, or end up paying two rents. Local knowledge from current graduate students and the university housing office can be of great help.

Cost of Living

Contrary to what I heard before coming to the U.S., I have not found the cost of living significantly cheaper. In fact compared to U.K. supermarkets I have found the basics of the student diet on a par, or more expensive. This is based on my experience of living in an urban area, and does not encompass driving to the massive out-of-town stores. However, I have visited such places on field trips, and my experience is that they are not particularly cheap either. Quality beer does exist, but it ain't cheap.

Many consumer goods are cheaper, however. If you want good field gear, or computers, the U.S. is good for that. If you buy online you will find many bargains. Cars and fuel are also cheap in the U.S. When I describe the cost of a gallon of petrol in the U.K., people can't believe it. However, insurance can be very expensive, and driving in U.S. cities is not a pleasant experience. The problem is that there is an underlying assumption that people own cars. This varies from place to place, so once again talk to other graduate students at the university you are joining.

I cannot stress how important medical insurance is. You will be required to have a certain amount if you come in on a J or F visa anyway, but even if you are just visiting the U.S. make sure you have plenty of insurance. The University of Chicago has just started to pay for our healthcare, but until this year I was paying about $1,000. You can chance it with dental and vision insurance, but if you are unlucky you could end up paying hundreds of dollars.


Funding will vary from university to university, and even within the university. I mainly teach to earn my keep, although I have also acted as a research assistant. This has allowed me to get a lot more teaching experience than I could possibly have acquired in the U.K., but be aware that this will often take up 15 to 20 hours of your week. The only solid research days I get are usually weekends. I have worked with foreign nationals funded by their own home governments to study in the States, so you should explore that possibility.

Should I stay or should I go?: Pros and Cons

Here are some personal thoughts that may or may not be of help from my experiences out here. These are my own opinions, and some people may think the pros are cons and vice versa.


  • There are many more universities in the U.S. than in the U.K., and with a lot more funding. This means a lot more chance of getting a place, and usually better facilities for your work. It also means there are many more postdoc positions in the U.S.
  • It is easier to take advantage of relevant courses offered at places like Friday Harbor, the Santa Fe Institute, and Woods Hole.
  • There are many more conferences at which you can meet people, find out about jobs/courses, and hear about new research.
  • You will have far more freedom to develop your own research, take courses outside your field, and pick up skills such as grant writing, than you would in most U.K. Ph.D. programmes.


  • You're looking at five years to complete your Ph.D., which is a significantly longer time commitment.
  • If you are a foreign national it is difficult to get U.S. government grants, unless your adviser is involved. If you don't like the idea of teaching, you will probably find it difficult to fund yourself.
  • You may find yourself working on the semester system, which is good for undergraduate teaching, but not so conducive to research.

I hope that this article has been of help to anybody thinking of pursuing Ph.D. research in the United States. If I can be of any help to anyone please feel free to drop me an email. My inbox is always open.

by Al McGowan

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